By Doug Kennedy
With the continued growth of online guest reviews, social media postings, and videos of customer rants on YouTube, it is obvious that a hotel’s level of guest service is increasingly transparent to the outside world. This is why in today’s world it is more important than ever to train your hotel hospitality staff to not only welcome guest complaints, but to actually encourage them.
Unfortunately too many hotel staffers still see the handling of complaints as an unpleasant but necessary task. What we need in the hotel industry today is a complete paradigm shift in how we view guest complaints. Instead, today’s hotel hospitality professionals should see guest complaints as opportunities and understand that the worst complaint is the one that is never mentioned. Certainly, some guests do complain on their own and in doing so actually offer the favor of a chance at resolution. Meanwhile, many other disgruntled guests depart the hotel without ever voicing their complaint, later venting their frustration online to their Facebook friends or TripAdvisor readers. This is why hotel associates should communicate their receptiveness to negative feedback and (figuratively) look at guests and say “Please complain!”
There are many ways in which hotels can encourage complaints, such offering guest service “hotlines,” but the best way is to simply train your staff to “read the guest.” By observing the guest’s body language and facial expressions when in person, and by listening for vocal inflection and tone when on the phone, it is easy to identify guests who are not completely satisfied. These are the guests who we can get to vocalize their complaint with just a little extra effort.
While some associates avoid asking for feedback at all, many others ask in such a way that the guest can sense they are not really receptive. So instead of saying a closed ended question such as “How was your stay, good?” which usually results in a one-word response, it is better to say something like “May I ask what you thought of our hotel?” or “May I just ask, is there anything we could have done to make your stay more enjoyable?”
Questions such as these, when asked with authentic sincerity and demonstrated by eye contact and a look of concern, usually elicit some frank and honest feedback encouraging those who had a problem to let us know.
Unfortunately too many frontline staffers treat un-expressed complaints as the proverbial “elephant in the room”; everyone sees it sitting right there taking up space but no one wants to acknowledge it. Yet by embracing complaints instead of avoiding them, hotels can gain an opportunity to resolve the complaint, to turn things around for the guest. Some complaints, when properly handled, can even help generate good will from the guest, especially if they are impressed with the way it was resolved.
As a hotel industry trainer who works with frontline staff every month, I recognize the challenges of creating this paradigm shift in attitude for complaints to be viewed as a “good thing.” This is why it is crucial for managers and leaders to support and reinforce the new perspective. One reinforcement tool is to celebrate guest complaints. Over the years I have worked with many hotels that have a fun way of celebrating other successes, such as ringing a bell in the group sales office when a new signed contract is returned. Maybe we should consider a bell or buzzer to ring in the back office when a complaint is received? Another way to encourage a new attitude about complaints is to measure and track them. Many hotels already keep a tally sheet in the reservations department and/or the front desk to record the number of reservations booked, the number of upsells, or the number of walk-ins captured. Why not implement a process for measuring and tracking the number of complaints received? Some of my clients over the years have called this the “Please Complain” list, whereby staffers record the guest name and room number, the nature of the incident causing the complaint, the action taken, and whether the guest was satisfied with the outcome.
In addition to tracking complaints, it is of course also important to train your staff on the tools they need to properly handle complaints. Here are some tips on handling complaints for your next meeting:
Listen without interrupting. When guests are first voicing their complaint, it is important to listen interactively without interrupting. Most guests first need to vent some frustration by telling their “story” complete with some dramatic details.
When in person, demonstrate your attentiveness by maintaining eye contact and having neutral facial expressions. Over the phone, be sure to add some “verbal nods” such as “I see,” “okay,” and “alright.”
Once the guest starts to slow down after venting their story in full detail, it is time for a statement of empathy followed by an apology. Empathy statements show “I can understand how you must feel; I can imagine I might feel the same way given the circumstance.”
To show empathy, paraphrase and re-state their complaint. This not only shows that we understand the details, but also provides validation for the speaker. “Ms. Young I can understand that this must have been frustrating for you. With such a big event planned for this evening I’m sure the last thing you needed was a hotel room without hot water.” Apologize. As simple as it is to apologize, far too often guest services associates offer no apology at all, or what’s worse, offer a trite, insincere comment such as “I’m sorry” without meaning it. When you read negative guest reviews or negative comment card postings, a common issue is that “No one seemed to care; no one even apologized.”
An apology is not an admission of fault; it simply says that the intentions were good.
Restate options. Guests who complain want results. Ideally we can just give them what they want or need. Yet in the real-world of hotels, sometimes it isn’t that easy. For example, if a guest wants a particular room type when absolutely none are available, try to offer at least two alternative choices to pick from.
Here is an example:
“Unfortunately Mr. Perez all of our pool view double rooms are occupied this evening. What I can do for you is to put you in a poolside king room and send in a rollaway bed, or I can offer you a garden view double room for this evening.”
By training your staff to be on the lookout for un-voiced guest complaints, and helping then understand how to draw-out the details and properly resolve the issues, we can reduce the odds that the incident surfaces in an online posting. Instead of having a disgruntled guest becoming the hotel’s worst nightmare, we can possibly turn that same guest into an apostle to help spread the good news about the great service they received to turn things around.